While most of the delegates here at Mobile World Congress have been busy fighting over next-generation GPS-enabled phones, playing with Nokia’s latest N-series or scrambling to get their hands on an Android-powered device, I went out in search of something a little more spicy.
During one of my recent trips to Uganda, I bought a ZTE handset from a street vendor. It was pretty basic, as you would expect for a phone which costs a little over $20 new. As much as possible had been stripped out to make it this price competitive – no browser, no data capability and no Java, and a monochrome LCD display with a bulk-standard orange backlight. But it worked, had good battery life and had four of the key functions demanded of a phone in this kind of market – a phone book and an alarm, and the ability to make and receive calls, and send and receive SMS. I thought this was about as basic as it could get – after all, what else could you possibly strip out to make it even cheaper?
Well, this week in Barcelona I may have found the answer. And the answer is, apparently, the screen. Spice Mobile have launched what they are calling “The People’s Phone” in India, and plan to roll it out in Europe by the summer. And it has no screen. At $20 (ironically, around the same price as my ZTE) it’s billed as a device which promotes “the power of the spoken word” and is designed for illiterate or visually impaired users. It boasts voice response technology, long battery life, a braille language keypad and a universal charger.
Could this be the future of “handsets for the masses” in developing countries?